After Leo Santa Cruz and Abner Mares spent 12 rounds in August battering each other with the kind of abandon normally reserved for a couple of great whites going hell for leather over the last scrap of beluga whale, the superlatives started rolling in.
It was a war, a brawl, a torrid scrap. But most of all, the consensus was that it was a Fight of the Year candidate.
Come the end of the year, many lists may have settled on other tilts in 2015, but Leo Santa Cruz vs Abner Mares was a finalist across the board. It was, instantly, the defining fight of Santa Cruz’s career, and one most people wouldn’t be too upset to see happen again.
“Before [fighting Mares], I got a lot of people saying I was a cherry picker, stuff like that,” says Santa Cruz, who claimed a 126-pound world title with the win. “After the Mares fight, everything changed. Those fans, I shut their mouths. I showed them I was a good fighter, and I surprised them. I don't pick no cherries or anything like that. Now, I hear good comments.”
After a signature victory like that, it’s important for a boxer to go out and get the next one, to prove that you’re the kind of champion who can dominate a division. That’s what people love to see more than anything else: the swag of a champion in his prime who's fiercely confident that he can take all comers.
Underdog stories? Sure. Those are great every now and again, when fighters rise up from the ranks to become the new sheriff. But Buster Douglas is famous primarily as a dragonslayer. And you don’t get to play dragonslayer without a dragon.
“That feels great that it was a candidate for Fight of the Year,” says Santa Cruz, who has now won world titles in three weight classes. “It makes me want to work harder and keep doing fights like that. It keeps me motivated to train harder, and hopefully next time, I'll win Fight of the Year.”
Perhaps that will be against Kiko Martinez, whom Leo Santa Cruz faces February 27 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California (Showtime, 10 p.m. PT/7 p.m. ET). Martinez, whose last three losses came against current 122-pound champions Carl Frampton and Scott Quigg, might be fighting for his very career, but Santa Cruz can’t afford to take his foot off the gas.
Especially not with Abner Mares fighting March 12 against Fernando Montiel on the Keith Thurman-Shawn Porter card in Uncasville, Connecticut. If Mares, a fellow Angelino, starts piling up victories and Santa Cruz were to stall, it could jeopardize the latter's status as the face of boxing in Southern California.
“I want to look great so I can get a lot more fans and become the head of L.A.'s main events,” Santa Cruz says. “That's what we want to show. It's hard to be a main event [boxer], because you have to bring people. You have to try to fill up the stadium. But with hard work, little by little, we're going to be bringing people in and become big.”
For complete coverage of Santa Cruz vs Martinez, make sure to swing over to our fight page.